It was a common assumption in the past that addiction may only be associated to an external substance, such as alcohol, food, or drugs for example: addiction is in fact a neurological dysfunction. It can be triggered by a number of factors, and can be activity based – work, sex, gambling, shopping are some examples; but really, one can develop addiction-like symptoms to anything. This fact is now recognised, and there are a number of outlets and centres that offer help: the term ‘adrenaline junkie’ may not be so far-fetched, as in fact, that’s what the activity based addict is after, rather than the ‘chemical shot’ offered by substances.
A study conducted at the Purdue University in Pennsylvania showed, through MRI scans, a neurological connection between addictive behaviour and thrill seeking. The brain of thrill seekers, when exposed to arousing images, activates an area called the ‘insula’, which is also active during addictive behaviours. Individuals whose personality wasn’t Type-T (thrill-seekers), when stimulated through emotionally arousing images, showed that the only the frontal cortex was active, which is the area that controls emotions. So it’s really down to what is experienced as ‘thrilling’: that, of course, varies from individual to individual.
A link between the Type-T personality and alcohol addiction has also been found by a study conducted by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). Apparently, individuals who rate high on risk-seeking, are at a much higher risk of becoming alcoholics if their parents are. People who rate low on risk-seeking are less likely to become alcoholics, even if the stem from an alcoholic family. It would seem therefore that ‘environmental’ conditions have an influence on the individual’s behaviour; but more importantly, it would seem that there is a certain type of personality that is more likely to develop addictive behaviours.
What causes addiction, and what happens at a neurological level? ‘Substances’ trigger internal chemical reactions that lead to a ‘dopamine fest’ in the blood stream, hence the temporary feeling of euphoria and intoxication (with the inevitable ‘downer’): but this can also be ‘engineered’ by the body itself, if exposed to images and activities that stimulate a strong emotional response (fear and pleasure): this response may be felt stronger in certain personalities.
Addiction is more than an innocent habit: it’s a vicious cycle where the individual uses the ‘object’ to lift the mood up, consequently falling into an even worse ‘downer’ in the aftermath; the addict needs then to use again and again to avoid the unpleasant emotions he/she was trying to avoid in first place, as they come back amplified. When this becomes pathological, it sets the individual onto a course of dependency on the ‘object’: the dependency becomes more and more profound, until it absorbs the whole personality. The ‘object’ becomes the only thing that counts: addiction is a nasty and very dangerous illness, which ultimately leads to the annihilation of the self.
Craig Nakken in ‘The Addictive Personality: Roots, Ritual, Recovery’ has identified three distinct phases in the addictive cycle:
Phase 1: internal change: an internal shift has taken place internally. The change is not yet obvious externally, however the personality has been profoundly altered. The personality thinks accordingly to an addictive ‘logic’.
Phase 2: the addictive personality is firmly in place, and lifestyle changes become apparent through altered behaviour. Behaviour indicates that the person is out of control and dependency is characterised by ritualistic manner.
Phase 3: total control of the addictive personality. Life breakdown: the addict doesn’t care about anything else other than getting ‘high’; extreme behaviour.
This process apparently is ‘mapped’ in the brain, and there seems to be no difference whether the addiction is substance based (drugs, alcohol, food) or activity based (work, gambling, sex, etc.). Addiction is an illness rooted in the neurological pathways of the brain: this would explain why it’s so difficult to ‘kick the habit’, once the habit has been established. Addictive impulses are generated physiologically, so overcoming addiction is not only a process based on free will: addiction is a neurological condition that has similarities with Tourette Syndrome, and requires a neurological ‘re-wiring’. The AA recommends uninterrupted attendance over 90 days in its programmes, which is incidentally roughly the time the brain needs to create new responses and pathways, e.i. to shift the addictive response neurologically.
The addictive response is irrational and visceral: it overrides the ‘objections’ of the rational brain and is uncontrollable. If the brain lifts a red flag, the response is somehow ignored by the system: the problem is also that the more the addictive pathway establishes itself in the brain, the less the individual will be able to control his/her conscious behaviour through the use of rationality, e.i. the frontal cortex, which is activated when the individual uses analytical/rational abilities.
The insula is connected to the addictive response, which would then explain why the craving for a ‘shot’ is so incontrollable, so ‘visceral’: the insula is believed to produce an emotionally meaningful context for sensory experience e.i. it translates the sensory experience into ‘feeling’. The insula has been largely ignored because there is no direct link to dopamine activation: however, MRI scans show that the insula is activated when the subject is exposed to ‘cues’– it’s believed that the insula’s role is one of ‘emotional memory’ storage, and that this area is responsible for generating cravings for the addictive object. One study in particular found that smokers who had suffered damage to the insula totally lost the craving for smoking. So, what is the relationship between ‘feelings’ and ‘physiology’, exactly? And does this impact on addiction?
Craig and Lange, as far as the XIX century, theorised that emotions and feelings are the result of a physiological state: in a word, how we ‘feel’ is the brain’s interpretation of the body’s chemical/physiological condition. Emotions would follow physiological states in the autonomic nervous system, rather than the reverse: this theory seems to have found validation in the latest findings about the role of the insula, and in particular in the studies conducted by Crain and Damasio.
Psychologically speaking, addiction originates from a ‘dysfunction’ in the emotional body (as we have seen above, these ‘feelings’ may be caused in first place by physiological changes in the body): the individual is faced with emotions and feelings that are uncomfortable and is not psychologically grounded enough to face something that appears problematic or that requires effort/control. Either way, an external object provides temporary relief, allowing the body to chemically go on a ‘high’, lifting the mood up: then it becomes a compulsion, as the addictive pathways establish themselves more and more in the brain’s map.
One, in principle, can become addicted to almost anything that causes a ‘shot’ of dopamine: addiction starts as an attempt by the individual to lift an emotional state. This process is not fundamentally unhealthy, as it’s simply an attempt to reverse a present negative state, and it’s acceptable if used in isolated cases. It becomes unhealthy when that becomes the only coping mechanism, leading inevitably to compulsion and dependency.
The line between habit and dependency can become a blurred one. T-type personality types are addicted to ‘thrill seeking’, and are after a self-generated ‘high’. The drive to be scared may be perhaps a matter of psychological need: to put it the way Jung famously put it, there is a need to express the ‘shadow’ that lives in each and every one of us, that part that contains all humanity’s unacceptable behaviours. Horror as a genre evokes a range of primal fears, so watching horror may have an important psychological cathartic function – the ‘exorcism’ of deeply seated subconscious fears: but, there may be also an addictive side.
The proof is not in the pudding, it’s in the insula: it would be interesting to verify if this visceral part of the brain is being activated when watching horror films. Interestingly though we enjoy horror only when we know it’s fictional: when really faced with a seriously scary or emotionally disturbing situation, and we know it’s real, we recoil from it – this is the correct empathic emotional response. This is possibly a response that is routed in how the early neurological system is stimulated, in early infancy.
I hope the above has given a better understanding of the dynamics of the addictive cycle and, if you are caught up in this problem, how to tackle the issue when you want to overcome addiction. It’s not that simple as it requires ‘re-wiring’ of established pathways: the good news though is that it’s indeed possible to rewire the brain. Perhaps the simple awareness of the fact that not only free will is required, but also a physiological intervention, will help understand that overcoming addiction is a process that takes time and necessary steps, and with hard work and patience, addiction can indeed be overcome.